The small village of Nkuv is 25 miles from Kumbo, a city of 60,000 in northwest Cameroon. In order to reach hospitals, marketplaces and schools, residents of Nkuv must walk for five or six hours or take expensive all terrain vehicles over a deeply rutted, often impassible road. The road is in such bad shape that some, such as the very sick and expectant mothers, do not make it to their destination.
This summer a delegation from the University of Kentucky arrived in Nkuv to see what they could do to improve the road and help the village. After spending nearly two weeks in the community surveying road conditions and meeting with community leaders, the UK chapter of Engineers Without Borders (EWB) is now hard at work raising money and making plans for next year, when they will return to Cameroon to fix the worst sections of the Nkuv-Kumbo road.
“When I was in high school I did a lot of volunteering and service my senior year,” says Meredith Doll, a junior civil engineering student and current president of UK’s EWB chapter. One of her high school teachers, a former Peace Corps volunteer, had told her about the situation. “I wanted to be able to go there and help the people,” she says.
When Doll came to UK as a freshman last year, she learned that UK’s chapter of EWB had disbanded. Similar to the healthcare nonprofit Doctors Without Borders, EWB partners with communities in developing countries all around the world to improve quality of life through engineering projects and training. As part of the UK Scholars in Engineering and Management (SEAM) program, Doll and several classmates were tasked with developing a group project for a leadership development class. Doll, along with fellow civil engineering major Austin Dahlem and Susan Kelty, a business major, chose to restart UK’s EWB chapter.
That was in the spring of 2009, more than a year before Doll, Dahlem and Kelty, along with civil engineering student Mark Fogelman and faculty adviser Dr. Nikiforos Stamatiadis, found themselves in Cameroon, faced with the daunting task of making a 25-mile impassable road walkable again. “My first impression was, ‘Oh my God,’” says Dahlem. “We really wanted to help, but when we saw that road, it was just a nightmare.” The group had an opportunity to observe the dilapidated state of the road first hand.
Because the Nkuv-Kumbo road is the only link between Nkuv and the outside world, the group had to hike the entire length of it in order to reach Nkuv to begin their work. The road’s worst sections are so bad that they can be crossed only on foot or extremely heavy multi-wheeled vehicles. During the months of the African rainy season those sections can become completely swamped with the 65” of annual rainfall. For over 18 years no repairs have been performed on the Nkuv-Kumbo road due to a lack of funding and equipment. Because culverts and ditch lines have fallen into such a state of disrepair, rainy season waters have seriously eroded the road surface.
“The undertaking is not for us to fix the whole road, but assess the situation and help them any way we can,” says Dr. Nikiforos Stamatiadis, the UK EWB’s faculty adviser. Ten miles of the road are in very bad condition, with 2.5 miles almost impassable. Those worst sections are the UK group’s focus. The group traveled from May 13 to 29, and spent four of those days surveying road conditions.
“It was really neat to go there not as a tourist but as someone there to help,” Dahlem says. The UK team first met with the mayor and the spiritual leader of the village at a welcome ceremony, where the American visitors were presented with gifts. “They gave us a goat and some chickens,” Dahlem says. The gifts they received help indicate the agricultural nature of the area. Many of Nkuv’s approximately 700 inhabitants are farmers who rely on the Nkuv-Kumbo road to transport their crops to the market in Kumbo. Restoring the road would help bring more economic livelihood to the area.
The UK team traveled with an EWB chapter from Hope College, a private, four-year, liberal arts college in Holland, Mich. The two groups shared a translator and pooled resources, and since the Hope College team had visited Nkuv before they helped the UK team set up crucial meetings with local officials. “They were really cool and they had a lot of information for us,” Doll says.
The Hope College chapter, which UK chapter met at a conference in Milwaukee last November, has been working on a bio-sand water filter that cleans drinking water in a sustainable way. According to Dahlem, the bio-sand filters illustrate one of the most important principles of EWB: the projects are meant to be maintained indefinitely by the local people once the EWB teams leave. (Since Hope College installed the water filters, Nkuv’s infant mortality rate has plummeted, Dahlem says.) “Whatever we build has to be sustainable for that community,” he says. “We can’t just build it and leave. The local community has to be able to maintain it.”
Being in a Third World country meant that there were some challenges to overcome, Stamatiadis explains. “We were in a setting that required a lot of open-mindedness,” he says. Sleeping arrangements and living arrangements were difficult.” The team needed to hike out two hours just to get to the worst section of the road in order to do their surveying work every day. Despite the challenging conditions, “there was no complaining or crying,” Stamatiadis says, laughing.
The group took some surveying equipment with them and measured around 200 station points, creating multiple cross-sections of the road. Now back in the United States, team members are entering the measurements into AutoCAD and MicroStation. Based on the cross-sections and their reconstruction of the road, the EWB team is beginning their plans for what the finished road will look like.
When next year’s group travels to Cameroon in the summer, they plan to do a demonstration of 500-700 feet of how the finished road should look. It won’t look like a typical road found in the United States. “We won’t be using concrete or asphalt,” Stamatiadis says. “Gravel and sand are available on site, so the finished road will be compacted gravel.” Because the road runs through mountainous terrain, it will be easy to get rocks and gravel. A river close by makes it easy to obtain sand. Local materials constrain their choices, but a gravel road will also be easy for the community to maintain after EWB leaves. The road will also stick close to its current path, even though “there are some locations where this road will be very difficult to repair,” Stamatiadis says. Changing the road’s course would require buying land and other arrangements, which would be too costly.
“The equipment we have available is basic as well,” Stamatiadis says. The community has access to a grader, a compactor and a front loader. The EWB team will guide the construction and pay for tools such as shovels. Labor will be provided by the community for construction, and locals will maintain the new road in the future. The EWB team will line the side ditches with rocks to help prevent them from filling with dirt and spilling water over onto the road bed. Concrete would be an ideal material again, but rocks are lower cost and can be maintained by the community. After the construction is completed next year, the EWB team plans to hold a course in road maintenance for the people of Nkuv, so that the new road sections can be maintained.
“Working in Third World countries is completely different,” Dahlem says. “Knowing what the people need and what they have, for instance, can be a huge challenge.” Right now two teams of students, about five each, are working on designs. One is working with the CAD measurements taken by the surveying group. The other is looking at solutions, combing through manuals for low volume unpaved roads.
“When we talk about designing a road, this isn’t the kind of road we would deal with here,” Stamatiadis says. “Even if you go pluck one of my former students from a consulting firm to help us, they wouldn’t know exactly how to help us.” Because the construction methods and materials are so different from the regular curriculum, “this is a self-learning process for the students as well,” he says.
The UK Engineers Without Borders has other priorities, too. “Right now one of our main goals is to create a sustainable organization,” Dahlem says. “We’re going to graduate before too long, and we don’t want the group to be limited to a select few students. We want it to be able to continue.”
Another goal is the need to raise money. “Fundraising is really important,” says Meredith Doll. “Every chapter struggles with fundraising, and we’re just trying to do what’s best for us.” Meeting with the Hope College group helped create strategies, and the group is pursuing several options. In order to return to Cameroon next summer, they will need $60,000 for the project.
Even as the UK EWB chapter looks toward going back to Cameroon, they are still searching for more opportunities. “We want to take on other projects as we get the group bigger,” Dahlem says. “There’s a lot of interest right now in international issues. It’s a popular topic.” Dahlem says the group would like to help out with some infrastructure projects closer to home, and is currently looking for opportunities in Appalachia. “We have a lot of people interested in that type of work,” he says.